Wealth Check: Living an Olympic dream – but can she stay afloat financially?

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The Independent Online

The patient

Yachtswoman Hannah Mills, 19, wants to make sure her finances are on an even keel as she prepares for Olympic glory.

She is a member of the Skandia Team GBR and is the British number two in the women's two-person dinghy class. Training for the 2012 Olympics must be balanced with her studies for a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Bristol.

Hannah is good enough to get sponsorship totalling £22,250 from sporting bodies, from print and electronics firm Pinder and from sailing clothes retailer Musto.

"This covered my costs this year," she says. "There's not a lot of money in sailing – most of what you receive is through sponsorship and prizes, so it can be a bit unstable, but you can get £8,000 to £12,000 for winning a world or European event."

Hannah is in her penultimate year at university; she borrows £3,200 per annum in student loans. Aside from this, she has no other debts.

"I probably won't be able to save any money from my sailing career in the first few years after university," she adds. "But I hope to be able to live comfortably."

Hannah and her parents split the cost of her £320-a-month rent for a room in a shared house; she would like to build up a deposit to buy a home at some point in her 20s. She has no pension or protection policies in place.

The cure

Hannah faces some choppy financial waters, warn our panel of independent financial advisers (IFAs). But with talent, dedication and a good stream of sponsorship already in her favour, she is in a strong position at least to maintain a good standard of living.

Savings/income

Once Hannah has graduated, she should start saving into a tax-free cash individual savings account (ISA), says Amanda Davidson of IFA Baigrie Davies. This may be used in an emergency, or to cover her costs if the sponsorship money does not stretch far enough.

To boost her cash reserves, she could offer her services as a professional speaker, suggests Martin Bamford of IFA Informed Choice: "Athletes are in demand as speakers; she could explore this opportunity by joining the Professional Speakers Association."

Debt

As long as she stays away from taking on further debt, Hannah will finish university owing £9,600 in student loans. Interest is charged at a relatively low rate – although it has recently gone up from 2.4 per cent to 4.8 per cent.

Hannah will start to repay the loans once she is earning more than £15,000 a year, with repayments capped at 9 per cent of her income above this. She should check with HM Revenue & Customs to see if her sponsorship funds class as earned income, says Ms Davidson.

Property

Until Hannah is financially stable, she should not consider taking on a mortgage, stresses Mr Bamford.

As a sailor she will be seen as self-employed by mortgage lenders, adds Julia Peake of Buckles Investment Services. She will need to show proof of earnings, which the lender will usually determine from three years of accounts.

Retirement

At some stage Hannah must consider how she plans to fund her retirement. The earlier she starts, the longer the fund has to grow. Paying into a stakeholder pension would suit her lifestyle, says Ms Peake. "This will give her the flexibility to stop and start contributions, and put lump sums in, without any penalty."

Protection

If she continues her sailing career, getting competitive life cover may prove a challenge, as Hannah will be seen as a high-risk policyholder by underwriters.

"Also, some may refuse income protection or critical illness cover to provide for her in case of an accident or severe illness," says Mr Bamford.

An insurance broker may be able to help find a solution when cover is needed.

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